I must confess that when I went to see this at the cinema on release here in the UK, I was less than impressed. Whilst there were some enjoyably noisy set pieces, the plot was so incomprehensible that I gave up trying to follow it and let it all wash over me. I mean, I got the gist of it, but whilst getting the gist might do for a movie where all you need to know is that there is a bomb onboard and there is a race to defuse it (see Juggernaut, 1974) this film demanded more. And I don't mean that I was demanding to know how the technology for invading someone's dream worked. I mean that I couldn't fit together the various pieces of the jigsaw needed to make sense, not just of the multiple timelines and places, but also of the relationship between Cobb (De Caprio) and Mal (Cotillard).
Something drew me back to watch it again. I actually paid good money to buy the DVD.
And again. On Netflix.
And again. This year, I bought the Blu-Ray.
I'm not quite sure why, except that I love it, and have developed something of an obsession with it. Possibly, it's the compulsive score by Hans Zimmer. It's not the dialogue, which can be sparse and repetitive - when it isn't trying to talk us into surrendering to ignoring the plot holes.
The climax where the heist team 'ride the kicks' back up to consciousness is thrilling. Somehow, director Christopher Nolan invests the whole absurd enterprise - every scene - with a gravity and significance that the plot doesn't really merit. A wealthy businessman wants a team of glorified thieves to not steal, but to 'incept' an idea to his chief competitor to break up his own empire - by invading his dreams. I mean, come on, really??
As usual with the best heist movies, we're rooting for the criminals to succeed, and the brilliantly staged action sequences, along with some imaginative special effects (as when Ellen Paige and De Caprio first explore how to build a dreamscape) draw us in, whether we understand what's going on or not.
However, what really lies at the centre of the film is the notion that whilst ideas may be inspirational, they can also be horribly corrosive, and this is explored not just in the terrifying relationship between Cobb and Mal, but in the construction of the movie itself. Nolan has explained more than once what was meant by the final shot, where Cobb's totem - the spinning top (which he stole from Mal) - spins, and spins, but doesn't topple before a cut to black. It suggests that he's not left the world of dreams. But Nolan leaves other hints* that the whole adventure is a dream, not just Cobb's happy ending. And that insidious thought still stalks the internet. Here's just one take on it, more than ten years after the movie's first release.
Today (27 July 2020) Radio 4 advertised a programme about the impact of 'doubt' in our world.(How They Made Us Doubt Everything). In particular, it will focus on how the tobacco industry made us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer, and how the same tactics are being used to cast doubt on the idea that man-made climate change is a real problem. I can see how this might extend to the doubt that vaccination is necessary for our health; the doubt that Corona Virus just accidentally 'jumped' from nature into humans; the doubt that Princess Diana died entirely by accident in a car crash.
Are Cobb and his team at work in our heads? Right now?
*Note the scene where Cobb visits the chemist and the tries out the 'deep sedative' that he needs for his mission. When he goes to the bathroom, splashing his face to help him recover, he tries to spin the top, but is interrupted by Saito. So, we don't get to check whether he has woken to full consciousness.